I have been arguing that Jesus talked about a figure he called the Son of Man, a cosmic judge of the earth who was soon to arrive from heaven to judge all people, to destroy the opponents of God (both human and non-human) and to reward his (human) followers with a utopian kingdom here on earth. This was not a weird, unusual, or psychotic message: in basic terms it was a rather common view among Jews in Jesus day, a view that scholars have called “apocalyptic.”
The word comes from the Greek term “apocalypsis,” which means a “revealing” or an “unveiling.” Jewish apocalypticism was widespread in Jesus’ day: it was a view held by the Pharisees, the Essenes (including the authors and users of the Dead Sea Scrolls), authors of books such as 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, and 2 Baruch, various “prophets” we know about (named and unnamed), John the Baptist, and many, many others. These Jews believed the world was controlled for now by forces of evil, but God was soon to re-assert his authority by bringing in a day of judgment in which all that was evil would be destroyed.
It was common among these groups to think this was all going to happen very soon: these are the end times according to both the Essenes and the pre-Christian Paul; the end is coming right away according to John the Baptist (Luke 3:9); it will happen within his own generation according to Jesus (Mark 9:1; 13:30). Why soon? Because the world has gotten as bad as it can get and it can’t last much longer. God will intervene soon. If you are suffering for siding with God: hold on! It won’t be long! Soon you will be vindicated and rewarded.
Jesus taught this. His followers believed it. The Son of Man was to arrive at any time.
What happened when he didn’t? What happened when the end that was coming soon did not come at all? Various things happened in different groups. Among the followers of Jesus, his apocalyptic message of the imminent arrival of the Son of Man came to be transformed — de-apocalypticized — by the storytellers who recounted his teachings. In our later Gospel sources, Jesus’ teaching begins to sound different. Less apocalyptic. Eventually it became non-apocalyptic. Later still it became anti-apocalyptic. One can see why. The original predictions did not pan out. So they must have meant something else.
I trace this development in my book, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. This is what I say there:
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